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In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made

3.45  ·  Rating details ·  4,813 ratings  ·  546 reviews
Ring around the rosies,
A pocketful of posies,
Ashes, ashes,
We all fall down.

—"Ring Around the Rosies," a children's rhyme about the Black Death

The Black Death was the fourteenth century's equivalent of a nuclear war. It wiped out one-third of Europe's population, taking some 20 million lives. And yet, most of what we know about it is wrong. The details of the Plague etched
Paperback, 245 pages
Published April 16th 2002 by Harper Perennial (first published 2001)
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Average rating 3.45  · 
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Jan 23, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Ugh, the negative reviews are right. Despite seeing all the criticism, I thought, "Well, maybe it won't be so bad. How can a history of the Black Death be terrible?" But Cantor managed it. I'd never read anything by the guy, but if his other work is even marginally like this, then I'll avoid it like, well, the plague.

I'm only reiterating what's been said in the other reviews, but it's worth another mention. The off-topic tangents and irrelevant details (who cares about the wine on sale today rel
May 10, 2011 rated it did not like it
Of all of Norman Cantor's books about the Middle Ages, this is by far the worst! Cantor was once a decent (though never great) medieval historian, but that time has long past. This book is not only poorly written/edited, but it is also wildly inaccurate. Its clear that the intended audience of this book is the general public and it is not for a specialist, but that does not make it acceptable to sensationalize/misrepresent facts in the guise of making the subject more interesting or more accessi ...more
Aug 05, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made by Norman F. Cantor is a lecture-type book filled with some interesting facts and amusing side stories; it is easy to read at only 220 pages long and does not have a single footnote. While it might not be the in-depth analysis that medieval scholars would look for on this subject, it was exactly what I (a casual history buff) wanted when I picked it up: general information into the plague, its causes, and its effect on European his ...more
Remittance Girl
Jun 16, 2012 rated it did not like it
I have to agree with many of the earlier reviews. The number of digressions to unrelated issues and the sarcastic sideways swipes of the most blatant and subjective sort made this book unreadable.

I was interested in the Black Death. I was not interested in Mr. Cantor's personal feelings on the royal families of Europe, who owns Catherine of Aragon's vineyards today, or his scathing remarks on the medical ignorance of medieval physicians.

This strikes me as being written by someone who is far mor
Apr 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book was more like an introduction to what the plague left in its wake. So if you are just getting interested in it, this is a good book to start with.
This is possibly the worst book of history I have ever read. High points include: a suggestion that Jews were to blame for their own massacre (152), a twenty-page-plus chapter on how the Black Death was good for women (123-146), the assertion that Shakespeare's Richard II is "in some ways the best account of that pathetic and unstable figure" (214) (who, Cantor takes pains to remind us, multiple times, was gay, gay, gay), pages of rambling about Jewish history into the twentieth century (164-167 ...more
Vincent Masson
Dec 08, 2021 rated it liked it
Interesting how much this book parallels what's happening today - which I am now convinced is not unique, but has happened numerous times over hundreds of years.

The decrease in workers as a result of a pandemic gives them room to renegotiate their conditions and pay. History could be seen as a series of pandemics tipping the power back and fourth between the workers and the owners, actually.

This book is more of a historical background of England in the middle ages than a strict chronology or i
Aug 04, 2011 rated it it was ok
Cantor took a fascinating subject and basically threw away all the options he had to be interesting and craft a narrative with impact. His writing is basically what you'd expect from an academic (i.e., NOT a writer) trying to write for the popular market - he tries to engage the reader with stories and specific examples, only to lead you down a lot of irrelevant tangents, or to pique your interest and then never return to finish a subject he's opened. He's not even a very good writer, mechanical ...more
Torrey Gilday
Sep 09, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: history
After reviewing this book for an undergrad history course (not by choice), I thought I would revisit it as more of a "fun" book--a decision I regret.

The most that can be said for this book is that it does contain some interesting factoids about the time period, which succeed in partially fleshing out the social life of the Middle Ages. For the uneducated layman, it does provide some introduction to the Black Death.

Unfortunately, the author looms large in this book, which by definition makes it b
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly

“The survivors of the biomedical holocaust were at first too stunned and confused to do more than augment religious exercises. But slowly it was realized that institutions and the populace would be deeply affected by the great biomedical devastation and sudden severe shrinkage of the population. At various levels of society there were challenges to the old order and there were adjustments to be made to a drastically affected world. The pestilence deeply affected individual and family behavior an
May 21, 2010 rated it did not like it
Terrible. As someone who is keenly interested in both the time period as well as communicable disease, I found this book horribly biased (author frequently feels the need to comment on people of the time in often derogatory ways, particularly those of the ruling class), badly written, and could not even stomach finishing it more than halfway, when I can count the number of books I've put down unfinished on two hands. It jumps around like a scared rabbit in no particular order, and to be frank, i ...more
Jan 20, 2016 rated it it was ok
While the late Norman Cantor, author of this book, may have been a Professor of History, etc. at NYU, this work has enough flaws for his editors to rightly have demanded a re-write.

Stubbornly, I hung in until Page 103 of the soft cover edition, when I threw up my hands and thought, "Enough!" Here are a few of my reasons for closing this book for good.

First, Cantor's overall tone is completely un-scholarly. Witness, for instance, his reference to Princess Joan, daughter of Edward III, as a "top-
Feb 08, 2021 rated it did not like it
Eeek this book is for sure the worst book I've read this year. The black plague is normally something I'm interested in learning about but this book was just not interesting. The facts is not well written or interesting and he keeps putting out his opinions trough out that doesn't make the book more interesting or feelt needed. Can like it sometime if it has a point but in non fiction I want to learn the facts not the opinion of the author. I had more issues with it but I'm not writing everythin ...more
Robin Hobb
Mar 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Well written and absorbing. This book offered me a lot of insights into not just what the plague did to Europe, but how it changed social structure, especially in regard to the role of wealthy women. Recommended highly.
Jul 05, 2012 rated it liked it
Norman Cantor’s slim little volume the Black Death is a great example of how to write a popular history. His main goal is to tell us, in broad strokes, what he thinks. He’s the well known professor out on the lecture circuit, not the Ph.D. candidate defending his thesis. There’s not a footnote in sight, but there are plenty of one-liners and off-handed jabs:

Late medieval England was not a welfare society. That did not happen until the application of the Elizabethan poor laws in the 1580s which,
Alger Smythe-Hopkins
Oh golly was this a bad book.

Incoherent and inaccurate, this late effort by Cantor fails to even live up to its title, and elucidate the lasting effects the Black Plague. The sources Cantor cites are antique and appear selected just because they agree with his own opinions, the chapter order is random and compose of rambling anecdotes that arrive in weird places, and throughout the book unsupported observations repeat endlessly as if repetition makes the assertion more truer.

Furthermore, Cantor
Tom Darrow
Jul 31, 2011 rated it it was ok
This book is pretty terrible. I gave it two stars, as opposed to one, because it is clear that he knows a fair amount about the Middle Ages. He didn't earn any more than two because 1) it's clear that he knows very little about the Bubonic Plague and 2) he doesn't make very many strong connections about how the plague impacted the world.

Most of his focus is on England and not the rest of Europe. He goes off on tangents about the English royal family 3 generations before the plague.

The few good p
Nov 28, 2008 rated it it was ok
Frankly, I was disappointed. I had high hopes for this book. I am fascinated by the Black Death and interested in the author's theory that the Black Death was actually a combination of the plague and anthrax. This is not a theory I had heard much about. Rather than enhancing my understanding of his hypothesis, it left me without answers or substantiation of this cutting edge theory.

Rather than the story of the plague itself, it seemed the relative merits of the economic feudal system of the mid
Calypso Kenney
Jan 04, 2015 rated it did not like it
I didn't really understand the tone of this book- it was as if the author hated his subject. The Plague of the 14th century should be a fascinating topic- but this book was kind of dull, and very messy. Entire sentences were repeated in different chapters, and there was no context behind the writing- the idea that the plague was the result of "outer space bacteria" that fell into our atmosphere was given more space than the 1381 Peasant's Revolt, which was directly influenced by the plague. I ju ...more
This book looks at what happened after the Plague ravaged Europe. Cantor speculates on what historical changes were possible only because of the plague and what could have happened without its devastation. I've read this book a few times, and I have always been intrigued by how much was changed in Europe due to the sheer amount of deaths and the lack of workers in the countries affected by the Black Death. Don't go looking into this book as another history about what happened during the plague y ...more
Nov 28, 2009 rated it it was ok
I don't read a lot of books about history. Is this how they're supposed to read? I found it convoluted, disjointed, and prone to tangents. I would spend pages wondering what in the hell this was supposed to do with the main topic of the chapter, and then finally, at the end, he would tack on an epilogue explaining how it all fit together. In the end, I guess I did learn a lot about medieval history, but not all that much about the Black Death itself. I think it would have been more interesting t ...more
Victor Sonkin
I struggle to remember the whole properly after a short while, which probably says that it was not very innovative. There are some interesting stories, though, notably about the Jewish conspiracy; and also the general attitude of historians to the whole affair, which lacks a lot, unfortunately, primarily because the understanding of biological mechanisms is still (and probably will remain) rather sketchy.
Sep 08, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in the Plague or Midievil Europe
The focus of this book was primarily upon the effects of the Black Death (as you might guess from the title).

Cantor did talk about possible causes of the Plague mostly in the beginning and end of the book. The current theory seems to be the Y. Pestis carried by black rats with a simultaneous outbreak of Anthrax contracted from sick cattle. Apparently black rats are very slow moving and generally have a very limited range of travel so while it is quite possible they carried the fleas that spread
John  Ashtone
Oct 21, 2017 rated it did not like it
Dreadful. Just avoid and read any other book on the subject.

I have noticed many people have rated this 2 stars, due the them thinking Cantor had done lots of research. He didn't or if he did, he changed, or more likely chose to change the facts, to meet his totally invented ideas. I should have guessed early when he states that the population of England on the eve of the Black Death was around 6 million? Total nonesense, but then the whole book is shot through with invented 'facts'.
Most estimat
Taymaz Azimi
I left this book unfinished almost midway through. This is a book about one of the most tragic incidents in human history which has many aspects to explore, but this author appears to be completely unqualified for such exploration. This book is full of gossips and unfounded claims, and the author doesn’t even bother himself with providing a single reference. The other annoying element if this book is that less than a third of its content is directly about Black Death. I understand that any work ...more
Jul 07, 2007 rated it really liked it
I found this book very different from my expectations but nonetheless fascinating. It does not spend as much time on the progression and details of the black plague's spread as it does on the historical and socialogical import and impact of the plague on Europe--which was catastrophic and world order changing in its scope! The author explores the origins and possible spread theories of the plague, which are imperfectly explained by the most popular 'rat infestation' alone. I was surprised.. and ...more
Dave Maddock
Nov 17, 2012 rated it did not like it
Shelves: history
In a parenthetical, Cantor claims that one of his sources wrote his book after "his department head reminded him it was publish or perish time." I suspect this is true of Cantor's work too. It is sloppy, unfocused, and frankly, only about 20% relevant to the Plague. There are places too where he comes off as blissfully ignorant of some of his subject matter--as in his description of the ancestral hominid Australopithecus as "probably black"--and makes one wonder what else he's got wrong that you ...more
Katherine Rowland
Apr 26, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nf-history
Disappointing. The concept was fascinating: how did the Black Death change society? The execution of this concept was sadly wanting. Too gossipy in tone in some places, dry in others, the author skips from topic to topic as though he were writing a series of essays entitled, "Some Things I Know About the Plague and Medieval Europe (Now With 75% Less Verification).

Cantor has some valid points and attempts to breathe life into people who now seem to be only names. But the positives are outweighed
Alice Gorman
Feb 14, 2020 rated it did not like it
This is the only book I've ever written to the publisher about to demand a refund. (There was no reply). It doesn't seem the manuscript was edited or reviewed. The book is about Europe, but the terminology is often American - eg 'ranch'. To me, the book reads as if Cantor took his lecture notes and gave them to an undergraduate student to write up into a manuscript, as a money-making exercise. I hope the student got their cut of the royalties! ...more
Shhhhh Ahhhhh
Nov 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shame on me for not paying enough attention to the title. First, when I got it, I thought it was going to be about the zombie apocalypse. When i found out it was actually about the black plague, I thought to myself "yay, it's about the real zombie apocalypse". Then, when I started reading it, I realized that I had entirely overlooked the word "wake".

This book taught me a lot about european societies during the black plague outbreaks, the competing hypotheses about the black plague (bubonic and
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Born in Winnipeg, Canada, Cantor received his B.A. at the University of Manitoba in 1951. He went on to get his master's degree in 1953 from Princeton University and spent a year as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. He received his doctorate from Princeton in 1957 under the direction of the eminent medievalist Joseph R. Strayer.

After teaching at Princeton, Cantor moved to Columbia Univ

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